What is anarchism? It is an attempt to bring about a more peaceful, cooperative, equitable society, as well as a framework with which to judge existing society and a set of tools with which to change it. But anarchism isn’t really one thing; it is rather a range of tendencies, bound together by their libertarian character—notably their opposition to the state—and their critique of both capitalist economic relations and the various forms of state socialism that have come and gone. The coercive power of the state underlies both capitalism and socialism, at least as we have known them, both dominating and submerging the individual and, through law-backed privilege, dividing owners from workers. Both are centralizing, hierarchical systems, monopoly systems kept afloat in the final analysis by force. Anarchists have presented a wide variety of economic proposals and lived a colorful medley of real-life social and economic experiments, sure that other ways—consensual and mutualistic rather than authoritarian and exploitative—are possible. As anarchism has matured, it has confronted ever more inequalities of authority, resisting racism and sexism, among other sources of social domination.
Anarchism emerged in the first half of the nineteenth century as a response to several related phenomena: the growth of industrial capitalism, the development of political economy as a separate and distinct discipline, and the rise of nationalism and the modern nation-state. And while the world is a very different place today, anarchism’s critique of centralized power remains relevant. Anarchism is a real, workable answer that, despite its provocative name, does not drive at lawlessness or chaos, but at a free, fair society in which communities are allowed to develop their own bottom-up solutions to concrete problems. Anarchism takes seriously the idea that if all people are equally free and equally entitled to dignity and autonomy, then no individual or group can have the right to impose upon or violate anyone. Thus did the eminent writer and historian George Woodcock suggest that anarchism is “aristocracy universalized and purified.”